One City, with Environmental Justice for All

At an All-Hands agency work day in Ward 7 a few years ago, Mayor Vincent C. Gray stopped by to talk to the District Department of the Environment (DDOE) team about his vision of environmental quality and equality for the District. He pointed out that many people continue to refer to wards east of the Anacostia River as “on the other side of the River,” as if these residents and businesses were "on the wrong side of the tracks.” The real opportunity, Mayor Gray said, is for us to embrace the Anacostia River as an asset and not as a liability. The Anacostia River has the huge potential to unite us, not divide us—he said—where we live should not create an “us” versus “them” distinction because we are all residents of the same District of Columbia.

OEEJ’s Chief Steve Kelton discusses EJ proposal with Director Anderson.
Today, the Mayor’s message still resonates. Many factors, including income levels, culture, parental education levels, and access, are at play here. Progress in any of these areas can help improve equity and sustainability in our city. There are District residents with disproportionate exposure to toxic chemicals, and some children have higher rates of asthma simply because of where they live. These are real issues of environmental justice, or “EJ” for short, that demand creative and effective solutions.

In this issue of Foliage, Steve Kelton, DDOE’s Chief of the Office of Enforcement and Environmental Justice (OEEJ), explains the agency’s role in ensuring EJ in the District; DC Lead and Healthy Homes Advisory Committee Chair Dave Jacobs and DDOE’s Pierre Erville explore how we are making homes healthier for kids; Attorney Daphne Rubin-Vega connects environmental justice to civil rights issues and the role of law schools in preparing future EJ problem-solvers; and our Office of Policy and Sustainability 2014 summer intern Simon Sochas discusses how environmental justice supports the Sustainable DC goal of making the District the healthiest, greenest, and most livable city in the United States.

We hope that devoting this issue of Foliage to equity, EJ, and sustainability will further increase our readers' awareness and understanding of these issues. This understanding will surely get us closer to the District we all want: a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.

Keith A. Anderson
Director

What is Environmental Justice?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development...

Read the Article

The District's Healthy Homes Partnership tackles Health Disparities

The condition of the District's housing stock has important implications for social equity and health for residents in the city. Disparities in health affect a significant percentage of our residents and, in many cases, the risk factors...

Read the Article

Environmental Justice, Civil Rights, and the Role of Law Schools

In 2011, approximately 44,000 students graduated from law schools in the United States. Many filled vacancies left by retirees (the United States has more than 700,000 lawyers according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics), while others hoped for openings created by job growth...

Read the Article

Environmental Justice and Sustainability

In 2013, the District established a 20-year sustainability plan called Sustainable DC. Sustainable DC is promoting socially equitable, environmentally responsive, and economically viable planning and development throughout the District. Achieving the vision of making the District the healthiest, greenest, and most livable city in the United States...

Read the Article

What is Environmental Justice?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” But, what is “fair treatment”? According to EPA, fair treatment is defined as equitable “protection from environmental and health hazards.” In other words, all citizens should enjoy the same environmental benefits; no favoritism.

Elevated blood lead levels affected nearly 4 per 1,000 District children less than six years of age.
The other key term in EPA’s definition of environmental justice is “meaningful involvement.” This concept requires that people have the opportunity to participate in decisions that may affect their environment and health. It also requires that regulatory agencies truly consider—and actively solicit—a broad array of public concerns.

DDOE’s Office of Enforcement and Environmental Justice (OEEJ) helps to ensure that citizens are not disproportionately burdened by negative environmental decisions and that all groups have meaningful involvement in critical decision-making processes. One way we do this is by reviewing large development proposals for EJ concerns. For controversial projects or those that may burden neighbors, OEEJ works to make sure that everyone’s voice is heard. The office may require developers to hold public meetings, for example, to discuss their plans and gather the affected neighborhood’s input.

In our review of development proposals in the District, we find that almost all projects do not generate long-term “environmental negatives” and have no disproportionate impact on historically disadvantaged groups. An example of the positive nature of development in the District would be a project that renovates a dilapidated recreation center or apartment building or one that converts a trash-strewn parking lot into a mixed-use development with both retail shops and housing. The District is not an industrial town; therefore, our EJ issues tend to be more subtle. Does a big-box retailer bring jobs and convenient, low-priced shopping? Or does it bring congested traffic and air pollution? Does your view of this big-box retailer change if your child has asthma?

So what is Environmental justice? Environmental justice is what happens when concerned citizens learn about the issues, get involved, and stay involved. Environmental justice occurs when we come together and tackle difficult issues such as the connection between elevated blood lead levels and lower income, minority families.

The District’s Healthy Homes Partnership tackles Health Disparities

The condition of the District's housing stock has important implications for social equity and health for residents in the city. Disparities in health affect a significant percentage of our residents and, in many cases, the risk factors are linked to one's economic and social conditions.

Lead abatement plays a critical role in making the District’s older housing lead-safe for generations to come.
People living in inadequate, substandard housing are more likely to be vulnerable to environmental diseases and injuries through exposure to lead hazards or exposure to asthma triggers. According to the city's health department, more than 400 District residents under the age of eighteen are hospitalized for asthma each year. Many of these hospitalizations are due to exposure to environmental hazards such as mold, pest infestations, poor ventilation, and allergens. The District ranks high in the U.S. in both asthma prevalence and its rate of increase, with roughly 15 percent of the population affected, and the greatest number of cases among African American children. These facts combined illustrate that indoor health hazard is an EJ issue that calls for immediate action.

While paint-based lead poisoning is more prominent among African-Americans nationwide, according to reports issued by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, the District has experienced dramatic progress in this area. A 60 percent decline in the number of children adversely affected by lead in the District over the past five years puts the nation's capital solidly on the path of becoming the first major urban jurisdiction in the United States to eradicate this longtime health threat to our children.

DDOE's creation of a broad Healthy Homes Partnership offers more hope. In 2012, DDOE turned its award-winning Healthy Homes program into the DC Partnership for Healthy Homes. This public-private partnership, which gets its referrals from local healthcare providers and District agencies, identifies and assesses a wide array of environmental health and safety threats to District residents. It provides customized solutions, focusing on children with severe and poorly controlled asthma, and on homes with at-risk younger children.

Home assessments are conducted by certified DDOE Healthy Homes Specialists who perform comprehensive case management and leverage customized care solutions as well as appropriate home repairs. DDOE staff work closely with counterparts at the DC Housing Authority to ensure public housing gets needed attention. DDOE also launched an interactive webpage at www.dchealthyhomes.com to educate residents about the different areas of the home where environmental health hazards are found.

As a consequence of the city's broad Healthy Homes Partnership, these health threats are effectively being eliminated in many homes. Health disparities are being reduced and homes are being repaired — a win-win for all.

Environmental Justice, Civil Rights, and the Role of Law Schools

In 2011, approximately 44,000 students graduated from law schools in the United States. Many filled vacancies left by retirees (the United States has more than 700,000 lawyers according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics), while others hoped for openings created by job growth. Despite the large number of law school graduates, only a few considered becoming environmental lawyers. Even fewer pursued environmental justice as their career choice.

A DDOE staffmember picks up the trash polluting a stream in Ward 7 during an agency's All Hands community clean up event.
Environmental justice, or “EJ” for short, is the concept of addressing the disproportionate share of adverse environmental effects borne by minority and lower-income communities. While EJ principles have been implemented in policy and legislation; including an executive order issued by former President Bill Clinton, some have argued that many law schools have not kept pace with preparing skilled EJ practitioners. That said, opportunities for EJ involvement are available at numerous law schools in the country, most of which provide law clinics that focus on addressing EJ issues in a real-world context.

Law schools in the District are making strides to ensure that students are prepared to participate in EJ. The Environmental Law Society of the University of the District of Columbia School of Law, the city’s only public law school, ensures that students work with national civil rights organizations to highlight environmental justice issues in the District. One of Georgetown Law School’s legal clinics, the Institute for Public Representation (IPR), has partnered with several community organizations on actions to help clean up the Anacostia River and address EJ concerns. In 2012, IPR intervened in a lawsuit brought by the federal and District governments to clean up contaminated sites along the Anacostia River. While they ultimately withdrew the lawsuit, they gained important EJ concessions above and beyond public participation typically found in similar cases. Howard University School of Law offers extensive training to civil rights advocates and exposes students to courses with EJ curriculum, such as Clean Air and Global Climate Change, Civil Rights Planning, Social Justice, and Sustainable Development.

Open burning dump in Ward 7 in the 1940s; site now known as Kenilworth Park
But undoubtedly, the real classroom appears to be the District itself. EJ case studies are available to students, with one of the most notable incidents occurring in the 1940s. When the federal government could not keep up with trash disposal, it operated an open burning dump on what is now Kenilworth Park. Located on the riverfront in Ward 7, a predominantly African-American community, the dump affected the air quality of the residents in that community. The legacy of the effects at this site are being addressed by the National Park Service in a Superfund investigation that continues to this day.

Unfortunately for affected communities, such as the Kenilworth Park neighborhood, the District offers law students real-life EJ problems to study and assess. One of the biggest EJ issues affecting the District is the toxic pollution in the Anacostia River. Once a natural resource for food and recreational activities, the Anacostia River has been a metaphorical dividing line between rich and poor; riddled with polluted fish and, despite easy access, too contaminated for swimming. The pollution affects the largely African-American and modest-income community of the Anacostia area. Because the river serves as a dividing line between communities, its disproportionate share of pollution in the District gives rise to numerous EJ concerns.

Relationships between District law schools and the U.S. Department of Justice, Natural Resources Defense Council, law firms, and other major players based in the city afford students the ability to take advantage of professional opportunities year-round. Upon graduation, law students with an interest in environmental law, and more specifically EJ, inherit an enviable professional community and bank of mentors.

The District is a magnet for aspiring EJ professionals. As advocates for a fairer world, law students should pursue EJ because of its goal to counteract multiple inequalities within one movement. EJ is growing with and being shaped by the concerns of our generation and could be the catalyst for major positive change across many fronts of inequity.

Environmental Justice and Sustainability

In 2013, the District established a 20-year sustainability plan called Sustainable DC. Sustainable DC is promoting socially equitable, environmentally responsive, and economically viable planning and development throughout the District. Achieving the vision of making the District the healthiest, greenest, and most livable city in the United States requires that we link economic prosperity and social welfare to broader environmental concerns.

Survival is the greatest instinct.
Think of sustainability as a three-legged stool made up of a strong environment, healthy economy, and an increasingly just and equitable community. If any one of the legs is weak, the stool becomes unstable. So, by planning for a sustainable city, we must prioritize social and economic well-being in the short and long-term, and recognize that the three legs support and strengthen one another.

The opposite is also true. Negative environmental consequences disproportionately affect lower-income and minority populations. While wealthier communities are more well prepared and resilient thanks to adequate technology and recovery mechanisms, lower-income communities are often left to endure the economic, social, and physical costs of pollution, waste and resource depletion. The issue of environmental justice extends far beyond the confines of these communities as there is a direct correlation between environmental equality and socio-economic prosperity at the local, regional and national scale.

Unless we, as a cohesive District, work towards greater equitable solutions to our social, economic and environmental problems, the likelihood of achieving sustainability will decline. Our natural environment does not acknowledge manmade, geopolitical frontiers or our delineation of various wards. Issues of pollution in Southeast should be just as big a concern as those in Northwest, Northeast and Southwest.

In light of the many dimensions of our environmental justice (EJ) issues, sustainability presents a plausible solution that brings together the economic, social, and environmental factors affecting EJ by providing incentives for, and engaging in, community benefits affecting all income categories. Whether by offering financial and technical assistance for the creation of rain gardens and other green infrastructure projects at the community level, or by providing weatherization for low-income households, the District is promoting sustainable solutions that improve quality of life while creating jobs and fostering the green economy of tomorrow. Perhaps more importantly, a focus on sustainability can generate a substantial change in policies, practices, and public involvement to focus improvement in communities that need it most. Ultimately, the goal is to alleviate unfair environmental burdens placed on communities.

Improving EJ implies abiding by ethical and moral values. Improving urban living with a focus on green development becomes a tool to: Sustainable policy and development should decrease the burden on low-income, minority citizens and increase the benefits for all. Here in the nation's capital, sustainability is a means for resolving issues of environmental justice and providing an increasingly equitable, healthy, and resilient environment for all—irrespective of race or income-level.